This is 1100 years of history in one glimpse.
Icelandic horses are very beautiful, especially in a winter gale. Icelanders will tell you that their ancestors brought them over from Norway by ship. Sure, guys.
… it can be a little rough. Really tough on the hair, for one.
Makes a horse a little crazed, you might think.
Watch out for your ears.
Yeah, but that is all because horses didn’t come over on boats from Norway and continue on to create America out of a lump of clay…
Note the horses being born above. You can just make them out below, too.
That’s how it works in a magical country. That the resulting horses look like the horses you might meet elsewhere, well…
… that’s part of the magic, too.
Now you know.
Time is a tricky thing, even in Iceland. On the South Coast, for instance, where lava has taken many farms away since settlement over 1000 years ago, and where people with no better means to independence eked out a subsistence living between the moss and basalt, power poles walk across the landscape towards Reykjavik. It’s there, in “modernity”, that most Icelanders now live, yet the power that sustains them and guarantees them the wealth to maintain their independence in a global world, walks across their past to get there and turns it into nature.In other words, to look at this landscape is to look at time, over a thousand years of social time included, through the lens of a great emptying. This sense of time is the price Icelanders must, perhaps, pay to belong to the world, but the cost is emptiness. It empties out the land, and empties out the past and empties out the soul. In short, one becomes dependent on the present and can no longer live in the fullness of time. This is not just an Icelandic issue. Today, as the Earth empties of life, we are all paying the price for this defense against each other. What a tricky balance!
I know, it’s a thing to chase after waterfalls, but consider the lowly Icelandic driftwood fence. It’s a charming tradition, speaking of past pain set aside.
It doesn’t really do anything except to remember, but it’s a fine artwork nonetheless. It catches the mind and holds it, and that is… well, that’s memory. Cool.
This image from North Iceland haunts me. This was once a prosperous farm, as the driftwood fence shows. In a country without wood, to have rights to pick up Siberian wood from the beach was enough to make a farm pay. Now they’re inexpensive replacements for more expensive metal posts, and not a cash item.
Speaking of economy, look at the tun, or house field in the centre of the image. It would have been manured with the manure from the winter sheep barn… just as far as a man could carry it with his strength. The point is, that was economy: this concentration of the energy of the land in such a way that it gave forth more richness in the year to come. This principle was applied after the Second World War, when the country embraced foreign modernity to maintain the old economy. In this case, the fuel tank, and a tractor that went with it, looked like a path to a bright future. Maybe it was for Reykjavik, but after 1,000 years no one lives here anymore. It’s still farmed, as a hayfield. The main field, the tun so to speak, is up against the ridge on the upper right of the image, bright green and fertilized with nitrogen fertilizer: an industrial product, that must be paid for with cash the land can barely spare. That’s where the edge of maintaining Iceland by bringing in foreign technology has lead now. Without it, there’d be no economy, yet if it had always been this way, there’d be no Iceland. This has always been Iceland’s bind. Gunnar Gunnarsons’s attempt to solve it by bringing modern German farming to the Fljótsdalur in 1939 lasted only a couple years, before he had to give it up. In fact, this might just be a universal human bind: one looks for permanency and must accept transience, yet the dream of permanency continues to exert its pull.
What it says is that we are haunted by the world as much as we haunt it.
Then it reveals another world.
Then it turns blue. The other world is still there, but white now.
Then there are colours, and mountains, as the two worlds join.
When you count the houses built at þingvellir each time Iceland enacts a new constitution, that’s three worlds. Well, four if you count the ice.
It is the horizon that marks the way across Iceland. It is there, where soft rock broken apart by fast-moving glaciers shows itself against the low, high-latitude snow, that one sees the difference between the impossible jumble of the near and the impossible formlessness of the distant.
It is the most basic cultural act to set up a human marker in that spot, in the most recognizable shape: a human guide. The jumble and the white-out become intimately more human, as a deep, psychological break between darkness and light. It clears the mind …
… and you find the way, exactly at the point, the ridges, where the wind blows the snow away. For most of Iceland’s history, these cairns were the difference between life and death as one travelled across country. Here at Litlafoss, it guides herdsmen out of the canyon pastures and away from the cliff where the raven nests and waits for you to slip and break your head. You can see some of these cairns on the left of the image below, although the one above was on the right and out of the image.
For Icelanders, these cairns are some of the deepest history in the land, and one of the historical markers of the creation of Icelandic culture.
They are to be approached with the reverence with which one approaches the caves at Lascaux or the Sphinx, and so are the glacial rubble fields that inspired them. Walk lightly in Iceland. Nature here is historical space.
You pass through history to get to the falls.
To find the falls, you must go deep into the earth.
In the speech he read throughout the Third Reich in the spring of 1940, “Our Land” Gunnar spoke of how Icelandic rock rose in the chain-linked stanzas of traditional Icelandic verse. Here’s the gorge outside his house.
At its foot lies Melárett, the fold that was the largest public building in Iceland in his time, used to gather flocks in winter and separate them out, farm by farm: a place for people to work in unison, come together, and then separate by choice into their own private affairs.
I’m sure the two concepts were intimately linked in series in his mind. Hitler didn’t enjoy the suggestion, by the way.